Today, we meet the oldest airplane designer. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The airplane that finally
brought down the Red Baron, Manfred
von Richtofen, was an English biplane called
the Sopwith Camel. It was a maneuverable little
plane. My father, who flew them in France, told me
they were tricky to fly. But with a good pilot,
they were deadly in combat. In 1917, the Germans
owned the air over the Western front. Then, that
summer, the Sopwith Camels arrived. And
control of the air shifted back to the allies.
It was called the Camel because the contour of its
fuselage included a humplike cowl over the guns, in
front of the pilot. And Sopwith referred to its
maker, Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith.
The WW-I air war was, in large measure a duel
between Sopwith and the maker of German airplanes,
Fokker. Sopwith learned to fly in 1910, when he was
twenty-two. By then, he'd raced automobiles and
speedboats, and he'd done daredevil ballooning. In
no time, he won flying prizes and used the prize
money to start making airplanes. Like Fokker, he
was a young airplane maker, ready for World War I.
During the war, he built 18,000 airplanes for the
British. His early Sopwith Pup and
Sopwith Triplane, along with the French
Nieuports, dominated the air until 1916 when the
Fokker Triplane appeared. But then the Camel
reclaimed Allied air superiority.
Both Sopwith and Fokker
were still under thirty in the fateful summer of
1917. Fokker came out with the superior Fokker
D-VII in 1918, and he momentarily gave the game
back to Germany. But then the French Spad
and England's Sopwith Snipe restored Allied
dominance. The Snipe became the mainstay of
British air power for a decade after the war. The
young Thomas Sopwith had done a remarkable job by
He stayed with airplane building after the war. In
1935 he was made Chairman of the Hawker-Siddley
group, and there he did a remarkable thing. In 1936
he decided to produce a thousand Hawker
Hurricanes on his own, without a government
contract. War was brewing again, and if the
government wasn't ready, Sopwith was. Without the
Hurricane, England would've been laid bare
against Nazi bombers in the early days of the
Battle of Britain.
But even that was far from the last of Sopwith.
After World War II, his company developed the
Hawker Harrier -- the first jet airplane
that could take off and land vertically. The
Harrier was prominent during the Falklands War.
Sopwith celebrated his hundredth birthday on
January 18th, 1988. The RAF sent flights of
Sopwith's airplanes past his home near London. What
a history lesson that was! An array of airplanes
from early flying machines to modern jets -- a
parade that called up the whole history of powered
flight in the life of one man. For Sopwith had a
perfectly uncanny ability to read the future. He
died, by the way, a year later at the age of 101.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds